After receiving gifts children head back to city-run hotels and shelters. Photo: Olga Fedorova

Joshmari Vanessa Perdomo Lopez was hard at work on a recent Saturday morning in the basement of the Calvary United Methodist Church in the western Bronx. Standing on a small stage, she sorted wrapped gifts based on age and gender–for children from 0-5 years old, 5-7, and so on.

Lopez, an asylum seeker from Venezuela, arrived in New York City just one month ago with her husband and 1-year-old son. 

Joshmari sorts gifts according to age and gender before other migrants begin to arrive. She is one of the many asylum seekers who volunteer to help others. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

“I like to help people out,” she says in Spanish. “Whether they are from my country or not, if there are events I’ll go to help, I do a little bit of everything.” 

Last weekend Lopez joined thousands of other asylum seekers who had recently arrived in New York City for a Three Kings Day celebration. The holiday, celebrated throughout parts of Latin America, is traditionally when children receive their Christmas presents. 

“I feel happy because the children have the opportunity to share with each other,” adds Lopez. “We are all united [and] they understand one another.” 

Thousands of gifts for asylum seekers

The celebration was organized by South Bronx Mutual Aid and La Morada, a restaurant run by Mexican immigrants. The restaurant was closed on Friday as volunteers wrapped gifts. The next day, more than 3,000 presents were stacked from wall to wall. 

The church where the celebration took place has worked with mutual aid groups in the past, including storing materials during the tragic Twin Parks Fire last year that killed 17 people. 

Chicken soup, pernil, and halacas are a welcome change from the often frozen and spoiled food at city-run shelters and hotels. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

At least 2,000 migrant children attended the celebration, according to Yajaira Saavedra, one of La Morda’s co-owners. Shehad spent the past week cooking hallacas — a traditional Venezuelan dish similar to tamales, pernil (roasted pork leg) and chicken soup. She was originally intending it to be for the asylum seekers staying at the Row Hotel in Midtown, but later decided to open it up to all migrants.  

“Not all [the] toys are new, not all are very extravagant but they’re all filled with prayer and love and hope,” says Saavedra. “This will be just the start of a better beginning.” 

Mayor Eric Adams said on Saturday that an estimated 36,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City since August, many of them sent to the city on buses from Texas. The majority of the people whom Epicenter-NYC spoke with were from Venezuela and Ecuador. 

Photographer Odalys Burgoa helps Marbelly (left) make new, happy memories with her little sister. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

There was an air of joy and excitement in the room. Smiling children rode scooters across the floor, while others played impromptu games of soccer and football and basketball. Others still enjoyed jumping up and down in a bouncy house while some got their faces painted and clutched their new stuffed animals. Their parents circulated the room, collecting free winter coats provided by South Bronx Mutual Aid  and picture books. In the background Tambor y Caña, a New York City-based Venezuelan band, played on the drums. So many people arrived that they overflowed into the Church’s pews.

Migrant volunteer plays ball with children as their parents go through the intake. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

“It’s really important to give kids that moment of joy and to be a kid,” says Karina Ciprian, a mutual aid volunteer with Word Up Community Bookshop.

Activists recorded the migrants’ information as they entered the room, using the celebration as an opportunity to better understand their needs, Ciprian explains. That included writing down the jobs they held in their home countries, in the hopes of connecting them with similar work in the city. 

“It’s mutual aid— it’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s beautiful and it’s chaotic,” Ciprian adds, describing the event. 

“Blessed and happy”

Sebastian says his daughter inspired the family to flee Ecuador. The parents say she is a very brave little girl. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

Sebastián and Daniela, a husband and wife who requested to be identified by their first names only, arrived in New York City from Ecuador less than a month ago. Sebastián has a picture of his daughter tattooed on his arm—he says her safety and wellbeing was the family’s “inspiration” for leaving home. 

They were robbed of all their belongings while crossing through Mexico, Daniela says, so they didn’t have “even one dollar” when they arrived. 

“Right now we can’t give [our daughter] anything, but thanks to the people [who organized the event] the children can have gifts and forget for a little while everything we have been going through,” she says. “Faith is what brought us this far, it was our encouragement to be sure, we are great believers in God and the Virgin.”

Daniela and Sebastián have been living in a shelter, where they say food is often not stored properly — there’s even some days when they can’t eat at all — making the celebratory hallacas and pernil all the more special. 

For Maria Jose’s 7 year old daughter, this was her first ever Three Kings Day celebration. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

That’s a similar experience to María Jose, from Venezuela, who says she arrived in the city 17 days ago with her 6-year-old daughter. 

At the same time she’s excited to be in New York City. “I haven’t oriented myself between north and south,” she says smiling. “I’ve never celebrated like this in my country.”  

Mutual aid organizing between migrants

Desudedith Bermudez, from Venezuela, arrived in New York City on Sept. 3 on a bus from Texas. After moving from a shelter to a hotel, he was able to secure a job and stable housing. Now he sends money to his family back home. Recently, he’s been helping other migrants like himself navigate the city, “telling them what documents they can get…what organizations they can go to, in other words, the little bit I know.” 

“It’s of vital importance to me, because since people here helped me I want to make my own contribution to society and to other immigrants that have just arrived,” he says. 

Many migrants arrive to New York with no shoes or warm clothes, and rely on donations to fill the need. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

Asylum seekers have been using WhatsApp groups to communicate and form support networks across the city, Bermudez explains—that’s part of how so many of them knew to come to the celebration, he says. 

South Bronx Mutual Aid and La Morada created groups too. Bermudez was part of the food and transportation group, while others made up a separate one for receiving and wrapping gifts, all without the help of any larger nonprofit organizations. 

For Saavedra and Ciprian, two of the mutual aid organizers that helped organize the festivities, immigrants’ rights are personal. 

“It’s very natural for me to remember my origin, that I also migrated here to the States with my family and at one point I was also in need of shelter and food,” says Saavedra, whose family immigrated to the Bronx from Oaxaca, Mexico. “So I just want to be there for the people the same way there were folks who were very gracious to me and my family when I needed it the most.” 

Her restaurant, La Morada, welcomes asylum seekers looking for a warm meal on a regular basis, no questions asked. She’s been organizing with what she said is now a network of 20 mutual aid groups since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Many volunteers are also asylum seekers. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

“This [event] is stating we don’t need any white saviors, we just need us. We are our greatest lines of defense and this is how we’re going to move forward,” she add, referencing the asylum seekers like Bermudez and Joshmarie Lopez working to help one another. 

Saavedra said she has visited nearly all the shelters where migrants are staying, working to become a familiar face for them.

“For me it’s really important to give back because this was my parents years ago, and folks who look like me and come from similar backgrounds as me,” says Ciprian, whose parents immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s. 

Challenges persist

At the same time they were celebrating, many asylum seekers told Epicenter-NYC they are still facing difficulties in the city, from the lack of employment, to childcare, to navigating the school system. 

Alejandra Landeta, from Ecuador, arrived in New York City in October with her husband and three children—two of them are studying at a school where she says the teachers don’t speak Spanish. 

“They say there are [fellow students] who sometimes understand each other by signs and help them,” she says. She hasn’t been able to find work yet because she doesn’t have anywhere to leave her two-year-old during the day. 

“We are dealing with a lot of folks who are traumatized and are really confused and really concerned about where to seek support,” says Ciprian. “People are texting us at all hours of the night that they’re being removed with no warning, or they’re being harassed by staff. So there’s just a lot more questions than answers really at this point.”

What you can do: 

To support asylum seekers, Ciprian says the best thing to do is donate to South Bronx Mutual Aid and La Morada through their venmo accounts (@lamoradanyc and @SouthBronxMutualAid) or PayPal and CashApp ($southbronxmutualaid). 

Stay up-to-date on events and information about donation drives via South Bronx Mutual Aid’s social media

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